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With sculpture, Frieze expands to Manhattan

The inaugural edition of Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center is open to the public until June 28

Jaume Plensa’s “Behind the Walls”.ST_20190430_LIFKAYSIU_4805769.jpg
Jaume Plensa’s “Behind the Walls”.

The flags of the countries in the United Nations were taken down and replaced with Ibrahim Mahama’s recycled jute bags once used to carry coffee, concrete and other materials.

Paulo Nazareth’s “Dry Cut (from Blacksin the Pool-Tommie)”.

Hank Willis Thomas’ “Josephine and Kazumi (Real Red)”.

New York

ROCKEFELLER Center was transformed over four nights. The flags of the countries in the United Nations, which normally surround the skating rink, were taken down and replaced with recycled jute bags once used to carry coffee, concrete and other materials.

On the main plaza between 30 Rockefeller Plaza and the skating rink, seven sculptures appeared, among them a split stone, a door of sorts and a raised fist that morphs into a gramophone. On Fifth Avenue, a white head with disembodied hands over its eyes loomed at nine metres.

Even the entrances to several buildings were made new overnight, with sculptures tucked into lobbies.

These pieces, all for sale by galleries, are part of the inaugural edition of Frieze Sculpture at Rockefeller Center, a public art installation that opened to the public on April 25 and will be up until June 28. It features 20 sculptures by 14 artists, placed like Easter eggs around the whole of Rockefeller Center.

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The initiative, presented by Frieze New York and Tishman Speyer, which owns Rockefeller Center, is expanding the Randalls Island-based art fair's footprint into Manhattan with work by artists including Hank Willis Thomas, Kiki Smith, Ibrahim Mahama, Sarah Sze, Walter De Maria and Joan Miró.

The display is meant "to do something outside of our five-day event where we engage with people in the city who may not be people who come out to an art fair," said Loring Randolph, Frieze's artistic director for the Americas. "This is a free, open-platform experience that anyone can go to and learn from."

It was inspired in part by Frieze Sculpture in Regent's Park, an offshoot of the London fair, but its highly urban setting, in one of the most heavily trafficked parts of the city, sets it apart. Brett Littman, director of the Noguchi Museum, is the curator.

Conversation around public sculpture has been fraught lately, particularly since the unveiling of Thomas Heatherwick's much-maligned Vessel at Hudson Yards, which was called "ruinously manspreading" by Michael Kimmelman, The New York Times architecture critic.

Then there are those strange bronze rabbits and rhinos and dogs that keep popping up around the city, often through commissions from business improvement districts.

With all this in mind, curators of public sculpture are wondering how to do better. How can one bring public sculpture responsibly to a city that suffers from the homogenisation of space? ("It's a huge responsibility," Ms Randolph said. "We take that very seriously.")

The Frieze installation's approach is largely about balance, variety and small-scale sculpture. Mr Littman selected a wide variety of artists - most of them living and working today - and placed them in conversation with the spaces they are in. In addition to the lobbies, he used the flagpoles and even a small space in a garden, where four of Rochelle Goldberg's sculptures are displayed.

"As much as I love monumental sculpture, I think there is a great way of showing nonmonumental sculpture in the middle of the city, and to have quiet moments and contemplation," Mr Littman said. (There is a monumental piece, too, in the large head with covered eyes - Jaume Plensa's "Behind the Walls," which Mr Littman noted would "probably be the most Instagrammed and photographed part of the show.")

Mr Littman's approach was also in part about the history of public art in and around Rockefeller Center. Ms Randolph and Mr Littman said their thinking about the fair began with Isamu Noguchi's "News", a bas-relief commissioned by The Associated Press in 1938 that depicts five journalists in action.

When it was unveiled in 1940 with great fanfare, it was the largest and heaviest stainless steel sculpture ever made.

The work inspired Ms Randolph to ask Mr Littman to curate the show because of his leadership of the Noguchi Museum. "I wanted to tie in a relationship with an object that had existed there historically," she said.

The politics of sculpture in the centre has long been complicated, too; Nelson Rockefeller had a mural painted by Diego Rivera at 30 Rockefeller Plaza destroyed in 1934 because it included a portrait of Lenin.

There are several overtly political pieces in the installation - including Mahama's replacement of the United Nations flags, a critique of globalism that deals with labour, transportation of materials and the history of trade - that may not translate so obviously into an Instagram post.

Representation of artists was also an important part of Mr Littman's curatorial approach; he said he had to "actively fight" to have female artists represented in the show, after most galleries proposed men. Four of the 14 artists represented are women, which, Mr Littman said, "is not a fantastic rate, but it's better than zero". Many of the artists featured are not white and not American. "For me, it was about democratising the sculpture park," he said.

It was also, he said, about shrinking the scale and exploring new spaces in the city-within-a-city that Rockefeller Center is. "In some ways, maybe New York City is the giant sculpture," he said, "and maybe the sculpture in it doesn't need to be giant." NYT

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